NEPD Staff Writer: Ken Vetrano
How does the AFC East stack up after the 2014 NFL Draft?
1.) New England Patriots
The only team that can dethrone the defending AFC Champion Patriots are… the Patriots. If the Pats can stay relatively healthy there’s no reason to think they won’t place another division title on their mantle. Offensively New England will be fine as long as Tom Brady is delivering the passes. The only problem comes when they get into the red zone and Rob Gronkowski isn’t available.
>Heading into next season Gronk should be viewed strictly as a luxury for this offense, one they can’t afford to depend on. Because the question isn’t whether or not he can stay healthy, but rather how long until he gets injured again? Hopefully Aaron Dobson will recover from off season surgery and regain the rapport he was slowly establishing with Brady last year. Fortunately for New England a revamped defense should keep most games in check, making the need for a weekly offensive onslaught like in years past less necessary.
Patriot fans were teased last year with the defense “that could have been”. When healthy New England looked like a top five defense in 2013. With the return of Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and the signings of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, this Patriots group looks primed for a banner year. The acquisitions of Revis and Browner allow players to be positioned where they excel best. Kyle Arrington can bang heads in the slot, while Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard contribute in sub packages. Both Ryan and Dennard also provide quality depth which New England will need during Browner’s four game suspension.
Going into the draft there wasn’t much room for rookies to crack the starting lineup. I would have liked to see them address linebacker at some point, given the scarce depth after Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. But the addition of Dominique Easley up front should pay off big time if he can come into the season near 100%. He’s the type of chess piece Belichick has been searching for on the defensive line, and at #29 Easley is the kind of prospect you don’t mind gambling on. The possibility of him and Chandler Jones on the field for three downs should get Pats fans excited.
A big concern fans have going into the draft each year is will New England hurt its arm reaching for the next Tavon Wilson or Duron Harmon? Whether you agree or disagree with their picks, they did not over extent for any player this year. I have ambivalent feelings towards drafting a QB so early, but at the end of the day there’s no such thing as showing up fashionably late to that party. When it comes to Brady’s career people should concentrate on the quality not quantity. Because he might steal a few rounds from father time, but eventually that right hook is going to land, and when it does no amount of smelling salts will revive Tom Terrific.
If you’re upset with the Jimmy Garoppolo pick, the odds are in favor you’re mad because they failed to draft immediate impact players who can maximize Brady’s window to win another Super Bowl. When in reality they did just that, just instead of adding players who will catch touchdowns, they selected individuals who will make sure the guy on the other end actually has time to throw to them.
For as much as tight end and red zone offense were areas of concern last season, the offensive line was even more alarming at times. The absence of Dante Scarnecchia combined with a lack of quality depth left New England in a precarious spot heading into this off season. An exorbitant amount of money has been allocated to Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly, two players who haven’t performed up to what their salary commands. The Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming picks should address the Pats offense line issues sooner rather later.
Favorite Draft Pick, Jeremy Gallon: Gallon can best be described as a poor man’s DeSean Jackson without an ego. Like Jackson, Gallon knows how to use his small frame to his advantage and get underneath defenders. He may not possess Jackson’s top end speed, but Gallon is still fast enough to get on top of secondary’s for the long ball. With an almost 38” vertical he routinely catches the football at its highest point, and will compete for 50/50 balls.
The competition between him and Josh Boyce will be interesting during training camp, given the fact Gallon’s game reflects a lot of Boyce’s. Both can line up inside or out, while also adding value in the return game. And considering Boyce’s progress was impeded by injuries over the course of his rookie year, Gallon won’t have as much ground to make up in order to pass him on the roster. I won’t be surprised if he becomes one of Brady’s favorite options by the time Thanksgiving rolls around.
Outlook: There have been plenty of changes elsewhere in the division this offseason, but as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. New England wins the AFC East, again.
2.) Buffalo Bills
Like the rest of the AFC East, Buffalo’s direction will be determined by their young quarterback’s progression. E.J. Manuel flashed at times last year before injuries eventually put a damper on his rookie season. Along with great size, he also showed an ability to move around the pocket and create plays. If Manuel can avoid getting hurt, he increases the Bills chances of becoming a factor in the division. And while an arms race has been raging between New England and Denver, Buffalo was able to equip themselves with a tomahawk missile coated in orange and purple.
Sammy Watkins is an absolute menace everywhere on the field. He’s as close to a complete receiver as you’re going to get coming out of college, and was worthy of Buffalo trading up to #4. Steve Smith was often referred to as “The Magic Man” earlier in his career, but that title might have a new home with Watkins. What makes him so deadly is his ability to generate space where there isn’t any, and then warp into hyper drive the second daylight presents itself. Manuel will have no shortage of weapons with Watkins, Robert Woods, T.J. Graham and Mike Williams on the field this year. Buffalo’s TE situation is less than desirable outside of Scott Chandler, but they may be able to counter those short comings by enlisting more four receiver sets.
Even though Watkins has gotten most of the attention regarding Buffalo’s draft, it’s their 2nd round pick Tackle Cyrus Kouandjio that will allow him to flourish by keeping Manuel upright. Buffalo also invested another pick inside the trenches in round five, this time with guard Cyril Richardson. Their offensive line is still far from the Leagues prettiest, but they gained some depth and talent over the weekend that should make them more formidable going forward.
Defensively the Bills have some good young talent across the board. Kiko Alonso was the defensive rookie of the year in my opinion, and should benefit greatly playing next to Brandon Spikes who will clear up the garbage in front for him. Mario Williams, Jerry Huges, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams will remain a force on the defensive line. Dareus’s recent arrest is a concern for Buffalo, but Stefan Charles and Alan Branch are both serviceable options if he’s suspended to start 2014. Da’Norris Searcy is a stud at SS, but with Jarius Byrd’s departure they’ll be counting on Aaron Williams to transition into center field.
Outlook: For all the moves Buffalo made on offense, New England has made just as many on defense to counter them. They should compete for a playoff berth, but the AFC East crown stays in Foxborough for another year.
3.) Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are relying heavily on Ryan Tannehill’s development. He wasn’t always the easiest to watch last season, but displayed enough signs of improvement to give Dolphins’ fans some optimism. The problem is Tannehill can’t take any steps forward if he’s constantly on his backside.
Miami’s offensive line was a disaster on and off the field last year. The Jonathan Martin saga was a distraction that lingered all season long and affected an already troubled line. So going into the draft it was vital Miami addressed their offensive line situation, and they did just that by grabbing Tennessee’s Ja’Waun James #19 overall. James size and versatility to play both guard and tackle should appeal to a team needing not only more talent but depth. With the addition of Brandon Albert via free agency, and North Dakota States Billy turner in the 3rd round, Miami has shown that upgrading the trenches was a priority.
Last off season the Dolphins reached deep into their pockets to sign free agent receiver Mike Wallace. The move did not pay nearly the amount of dividends they had hoped for, and Wallace will be looking to have a bounce back season to justify that contract. Miami is not completely devoid of talent at receiver. Over the past two seasons Brian Hartline has become one of the most productive wide outs in the division. And Charles Clay’s emergence last year gave an unexpected boost to their offense.
However it’s second round pick Jarvis Landry who may become Tanneill’s favorite target. Landry was one of the most clutch receivers in college while at LSU. He already has some of the NFL’s best hands, and hasn’t even taken a snap yet. He brings a level of dependability that Tannehill will appreciate from day one. Landry will most likely act as a possession receiver in their offense, but could be a factor outside. Hartline and Landry have a chance to become one of the better tandems in the AFC East.
Defensively the Dolphins are way ahead of their offense, and should continue being a strength for them. They’re in decent shape at starting corner after resigning Brent Grimes and picking up Cortland Finnegan during free agency, but depth after that could be a problem. Dimitri Patterson and Nolan Carroll both joined new teams, and Miami will need sophomore Jamar Taylor to contribute even more than he did previously. They invested a fourth rounder in Liberty corner Walt Aikens, who has the size and athleticism coaching staffs desire at CB. Louis Delmas is a good addition at safety if he can stay healthy, and FS Reshard Jones remains one of the league’s most underrated players.
As far as their defensive line goes, Jared Odrick should be able to replace Paul Soliai who left in free agency. Along with Randy Starks, Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake the Dolphins will have no trouble getting after the passer.
Outlook: If the Dolphins can get out of their own way and avoid locker room distractions, there’s no reason to believe they can’t put together a respectable season. Maybe even secure a slot on wild card weekend.
4.) New York Jets
The Jets will always begin and end with defense as long as Rex Ryan is at the helm. Unfortunately for Rex not everyone on board is always ready to man the sails. New York offers one of the more intimidating defensive lines in football with Muhammad Wilkerson and reining defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson. Even at his advanced age Calvin Pace was able to notch thirteen sacks last year, while David Harris continued to be their most stalwart player on the team. The back end of their defense however has regressed majorly over the past couple seasons.
A secondary that was still suffering from the trade of Darrell Revis, lost their other mainstay at CB when they released Antonio Cromartie March 9th. They signed veteran Dimitri Patterson and reached in the third round by taking Maryland’s Dexter McDougle this past weekend. Dee Milliner had a lack luster rookie campaign that was marred by poor performance and injuries. Dawan Landry is a veteran presence who knows how to operate Ryan’s defense, and first round pick Calvin Pryor should help set the tone Rex loves. Pryor is a hard hitting safety who can knock anyone senseless across the middle, while also maintaining range and making plays on the ball.
Offensively the Jets are still somewhat of a mess, but a mess with at least options. Hopefully for New York Geno Smith can improve on a rookie year that had more downs than ups. If Smith struggles early expect Michael Vick to be under center in a hurry. Vick could actually run an effective offense with gang green. His mobility plus Chris Johnson in the back field can give the Jets a potent run game so long as he stays healthy.
Last year was a disaster for New York at receiver, and they made a point of it to cure those ills this spring. Eric Decker may have reaped the rewards of a number two wide out playing with Peyton Manning, but he’ll quickly realize how lonely it gets without Demaryius Thomas opposite him. With that said, Decker is still a quality receiver, just not a number one receiver. Jacoby Ford has the top end speed to be a legitimate deep threat, but lacks the dependability to be a frequent target. Jeremy Kerley is their best receiver out of the slot, and should thrive with someone like Vick taking snaps at quarterback. Stephen Hill has been a disappointment his first two seasons, and needs to show something if he wants to stick around.
They used 4th round picks on Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders and UCLA’s Shaq Evans to bolster their receiving roster with more youth. Saunders plays bigger than his 5’9” frame would lead you to believe, and has the wheels to streak down field. Evans isn’t nearly as fast as Saunders, but will make tough catches in congested areas of the field.
Outlook: The Jets will be much improved on offense this year, but that’s not saying much considering how bad they were at times last season. I’m not a big believer in Geno, and eventually Rex is going to feel pressure to win now and ride with Vick. If he can stay healthy, Vick can make things interesting, but that’s a big “IF”. They have a shot to finish above .500, but will most likely fall short of the playoffs.